By Ben Blanchard
China is paying attention to Britain’s referendum on membership of the European Union and while it respects the people’s choice, Beijing hopes to see a strong and stable EU, the Chinese government said on Thursday as Britons headed to the polls.
China has not directly stated its opinion on the Brexit referendum, seeing the vote as an internal matter.
But diplomatic sources say China has given coded support for the “remain” camp by calling for a strong, united Europe – something President Xi Jinping told British Prime Minister David Cameron in October and Foreign Minister Wang Yi repeated last month.
“We are paying attention to Britain’s referendum on its relationship with the EU. We respect the choice of the British people,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a daily news briefing.
“We have also consistently supported the European integration process and would like to see a unified, strong and stable EU play an important role in international affairs,” she added.
Though China and Britain have a history of disputes over human rights and the future of the former British colony of Hong Kong, diplomats say export-reliant China values Britain as a strong advocate for free trade within the EU and the bloc as an important counterweight to the United States.
Relations between Britain and China have been warming over the past few years and economic links have multiplied in tandem in what both countries refer to as a “golden age” in ties.
“China pays great attention to its relations with Britain and is willing to continue having mutually beneficial cooperation in all areas,” Hua said.
One of China’s most influential and widely read newspapers, the Global Times, went further in its view on the referendum, saying that if Britain votes to leave the EU, then the country will lose its influence globally.
The paper, published by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, said the EU vote and 2014 Scottish independence referendum had made Britain appear one of the largest sources of uncertainty in Europe.
“The UK looks like it has been led astray, and this concerns Europe and the world,” it said in joint editorials in its Chinese and English-language editions.
“Staying in the EU has clear and critical interests for the UK, such as market guarantees and stable employment. Leaving will politically cost the UK chances to exert its influence,” the newspaper added.
“If the UK votes to leave, it will become an Atlantic orphan and lose its special relationship with the EU. In this circumstance, its special relationship with the U.S. will become more notable, but it may mean less to the US.”
By Ben Blanchard